Employees seeking career success need ‘political knowledge’

Haskayne study looks at why some people have a better understanding of their bosses

Backstabbing. Jealousy. Gossip. Passive-aggressive behaviour. The sting of office politics. Is that what Steve Granger means when he talks about political knowledge in the workplace?

“No, it’s the deep understanding some people have of their leaders,” he says, adding employees who want to be successful in their careers need to improve this skill.

“When you talk to managers and supervisors in organizations, some of their greatest assets are the employees that really get them and make it easier for them to carry out the organization’s goals,” he says. “What is it about these people that allows them to fully understand the world of their leaders?”

Granger, who is a PhD candidate at the Haskayne School of Business, co-authored a paper about this problem that was recently published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. It has implications for everyone from bosses seeking to build better workplace teams to employees who want to get their ideas across to their supervisors, he says.

Relationships seen as vital

Although every leader likely has first-hand experience with employees who understand them better than others, Granger says it has been difficult for researchers to figure out why this happens.

“If we just simply ask employees how well they understand their leaders, some of them will exaggerate how much they know, and some people may underestimate how much they really know and even leaders aren’t the best judges of this,” he says. “There wasn’t really anything in the academic literature that accurately captured this, so we developed this idea of political knowledge.”

Steve Granger

Haskayne PhD candidate Steve Granger co-authored a paper about political knowledge at work.

Brandie Sunley

Granger helped conduct four detailed studies from 2015 to 2018 involving about 1,400 people in Winnipeg and Calgary. The majority worked in retail and banking, he says, adding the paper was co-authored with Dr. Nick Turner, PhD, a professor at Haskayne, and Dr. Lukas Neville, PhD, an assistant professor at the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba.

“We originally focused on how people acquire this skill of political knowledge, and is it just that some people are better at it than others, and that’s just a part of who they are?” says Granger.

It turned out the employees who have political knowledge work hard at “actually communicating with their leader, and asking them questions and building a relationship with them, whereas people who simply try to imagine what their leaders think or know that’s a very poor way of understanding other people,” he says. “What really stood out for me in these studies was that it was the quality of their relationship with their leader that was by far the most important variable.”

'Better approach'

In the language of the researchers, political knowledge likely develops from “perspective-getting” actively seeking to learn what other people think by interacting with them rather than “perspective-taking,” or trying to imagine what others think without having to interact with them, says Granger.

The study found that employees with political knowledge are more likely to take charge and enact change in their organization because their ability to anticipate the reactions of their leader makes such efforts seem less risky. “If you try to understand your leader’s preferences and motivations, then you can align your ideas to them in a way that in their eyes will seem more acceptable, and that’s definitely a better approach,” says Granger.

The study also suggests leaders seeking to improve their employees’ political knowledge should focus on building high-quality relationships with them, he says.

“This is something that people can acquire without being particularly socially skilled, and I think the fact that anybody can acquire this knowledge diverges quite a bit from the research on organizational politics,” he says. “I think if we overcome the inclination to understand other people by making attributions without speaking with them, work would be a better place.”